An interview with Colin Mawby

This week we are honoured to present an interview with Colin Mawby. He has worked with the London Mozart Players, the Wren Orchestra, Pro Cantione Antiqua, the Belgian Radio Choir and the BBC Singers and was also Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, London (not to mention the most famous person that’s ever worked at KM!)

Colin Mawby

Can you tell me a bit about your childhood- do you come from a musical family?

I was brought up during World War 2 and have vivid memories of the bombing of Portsmouth where I lived.  My mother died when I was three and I was sent to Westminster Cathedral Choir School. George Malcolm was the choirmaster and he was a total inspiration to me. I learned most of what I know about music from the Choir School. My father was a convert – he was caught outside Portsmouth Catholic Cathedral in a rain storm and the only place he could shelter was inside. He went in and found himself in the middle of a Pontifical High Mass. He had never seen anything like it and went to the sacristy at its conclusion to ask what was going on.  This experience led to his conversion. My father remarried and Dad then decided to send me to the Choir School. He couldn’t afford the fees and the Parish Priest, a musician, offered to pay them. An extraordinary sequence of events.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School
Westminster Cathedral Choir School

Did you always want to play the organ and can you remember the first time you played?

I never had any ambition to play the organ – quite the contrary – I never wanted to be in the cathedral choir and tried my hardest to fail my voice test!  I explained that I didn’t know any songs and William Hyde, the then choirmaster, said that I must surely know the National Anthem. I fell into the trap and to my horror was accepted. I always get a good laugh about Cardinal Heenan who also took a voice test for the Choir School and was turned down. This would have been the highlight of Sir Richard Terry’s life – if only he had known!

George Malcolm obviously spotted a musical gift in me and asked me to play for Friday Compline in the Cathedral. I was able to accompany  the chant from the chant book and also improvise. This all seemed to me to be perfectly normal, something that all eleven year old boys did, it is only recently that I realise it is quite amazing. I then played for many Cathedral services as a boy.

You’ve performed for some extraordinary people including the Queen and John F Kennedy- would it be fair to say this carried a degree of anxiety?

I have conducted for extraordinary people but have never found it particularly nerve wracking.  Music totally takes one over and one forgets that there are eminent people in the audience.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career?

The highlight of my career was in Ireland. I founded the National Irish Chamber Choir and we developed a large educational programme. Part of it were two children’s operas which I composed and which were performed by schools. (Funded by the Arts Council of Ireland and the  Department of Education).They were totally professional performances– the children acted and sang the solos under professional direction. The choir acted as a ‘Greek Chorus’. Every year we performed with two disadvantaged schools and I remember a solo part being sung by a young girl with only 6 months to live and another occasion when a solo was taken by a girl who was paralysed as a result of a motor accident. (Drunken driving). She had also lost the power of speech but wanted to try and do the opera. She succeeded and it was deeply moving that my music had enabled her to speak and sing again. These were the two most memorable experiences of my life.

 ‘Tu Es Petrus’ was used for the papal inauguration, how did this make you feel?

I was delighted that my ‘Tu es Petrus’ was sung at the papal inauguration. The Director of the Sistine Choir asked me to write a ‘Tu es Petrus’ and the Sistine Choir has sung it on many occasions. I am amazed by all this! It’s a thrill to hear the Sistine Choir singing my work.

Papal Inauguration

You are quoted as saying that you can’t write choral music unless you work with choirs; that you have to write for particular people. Is it fair to say that your compositions have always been quite instinctive?

My composition is instinctive and I take no notice of musical fashion which I feel militates against the sense of the spiritual – it’s not sincere.   I try and write music that speaks to people’s souls, music that listeners can respond to emotionally and spiritually. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t!

Whom do you admire?

The three people who have had a profound effect on my life, apart from my father, are George Malcolm, Wilfred Purney (a superb priest) and Cardinal John Carmel Heenan.

Cardinal John Carmel Heenan

What advice would you give a young organist who wanted to become a professional musician?

It’s very difficult to become a professional musician so the first step is to earn sufficient money from music to live on. Teaching, privately and in schools, is the way to do this. Also, try and become a church choirmaster and ask for proper wedding fees and a reasonable stipend.  When you are able to support yourself, then begin to develop the recital career.  Meet as many fellow musicians as you can and develop a really good social manner. Never be afraid to ask people to help you and always remember that one has to pay the electricity bill!

How did you come to work for Kevin Mayhew and can you tell me a bit about your time there?

When I returned to England in 2003 I needed a job to tide me over a difficult time in my life and Kevin offered me one.  I have always thought that he is a publishing genius. It was highly interesting to watch him at work.

Latin Motets - Book One

What sort of music do you listen to for pleasure, and are you fond of any recording artists?

I like listening to Bach, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, basically I get enormous pleasure out of listening to most music.  I can’t single out recording artists – the standards are incredibly high.

Which of your works would you most like to be remembered for?

It’s difficult to single out a particular piece of music because I have written so much. I would like to be remembered as someone who has made a great contribution to sacred music. If my work moves people that’s wonderful – it’s a great privilege to compose and I thank God for the great success that I have had.

With special thanks to Colin for taking part in this interview